The practice of drinking tea has a long and complex history. Tea has been enjoyed and revered for over a thousand years. Beginning in China and spreading across Asia, it is a central part of traditional ceremonies and special celebrations. From preparing, brewing and sharing tea, tea traditions around the world can vary.
Tea traditions around the world reflect each culture tweaking the drink to fit their own style. Nonetheless, the constant among the different traditions is the shared love of tea. It is an incredibly diverse drink, accessible to all people and classes, and a lovely simple way to socialise with and to treat yourself.
What is tea?
Tea refers to a drink made by steeping the leaves from the Camellia Sinensis family of shrubs. Tea is the second most popular beverage after water, and it is this popularity which encouraged different tea traditions around the world.
The Chinese classification of tea divides tea into six types, based on the degree of oxidation. These are green tea, red tea, oolong tea, yellow tea, white tea and black tea. Did you know, confusingly, in the Western world, red tea is referred to as black tea due to historical tea trade terminology? The most consumed teas worldwide are green, oolong and black teas (as defined in the Western terminology).
Many herbal ‘teas’ are also drunk worldwide. However, these are not technically tea and often called tisanes instead. Herbal tisanes are made by steeping flowers, leaves, roots and bark of other plants in hot water to make drinks like peppermint tea or chamomile tea.
Tea travelled across the world
In the beginning, tea was used in ritual offerings in China. Then, tea leaves were eaten as a vegetable, or used in medicine. Tea drinking become an art form and a recreation enjoyed by society only during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907). From then on, its popularity spread across Asia.
Portuguese priests reportedly brought the drink to Europe during the 16th century from the Portugese colony of Macau. In the 17th century, a Portugese princess popularised the drink in England after marrying the English monarch.
And from England, tea travelled to India as the English wanted to produce tea for their own consumption without relying on the Chinese. The Portugese probably would not have predicted how their love of tea would change the world in this way!
Tea traditions around the world: Let’s look at how some countries in Asia celebrate tea
Tea is an essential part of daily life and cultural identity across China. It is especially important during family celebrations such as weddings and birthdays, where respect to elders is paid using tea. Tea is also used when praying to ancestors and entertaining guests.
Tea is revered in a number of other ways. It is enjoyed in private or in formal tea houses. It is enjoyed in the tea ceremony known as “Gong Fu Cha” (meaning “tea with great skill”). Gong Fu Cha involves the ritualised preparation, pouring and serving of tea. The fluid hand movements of an experienced practitioner almost seem like an elegant dance!
“Yum Cha” is a favourite Chinese culinary experience from the Cantonese-speaking belt of China. This has now gained immense popularity all over the world, including cities here in Australia. “Yum cha” (Cantonese for “drink tea”) is a tradition of eating bite-sized “dim sum” and drinking tea, often in family groups.
Originating from Taiwan, bubble tea is another relatively new way of enjoying tea that is popular with the young crowd. Bubble tea is a cold drink with a mix of tea, milk, and chewy balls of tapioca.
Japan has embraced tea and tea traditions and made them all their own. The Japanese have a tea ceremony which is held for only the most special of occasions and you might only experience a few times in your life.
The Japanese tea ceremony (or “chado”, the way of tea) is taught in special schools. Traditionally, it cannot be performed by just anyone or just anywhere. The teahouse is called the sukiya, and the door is traditionally small to require people to bow upon entering and come to the ceremony from a position of humility and respect.
Japan has created some of its own special forms of tea as well, which are taking the culinary world by storm at the moment. Matcha, for example, is a powder made from the green leaves of the tea plant grown in special shaded conditions. It has a very distinct flavour which lends itself beautifully to desserts, ice creams, and pastries as well as hot and cold drinks.
The Tibetan people celebrate their tea in quite a different way to other Asian cultures, preferring it served with rich, creamy butter, salt, and milk, even yak’s milk.
Tea drinking in Tibet is again quite ceremonial, with guests to a home saying tributes to Buddha using highland barley wine before drinking their butter tea. Guests take great care in finishing their cup of tea, or they risk insulting the host’s hospitality!
India has become one of the largest tea producing countries in the world, with its most famous kinds including Darjeeling and Assam.
The Indian way of drinking tea uses milk and has popularised the chai drink across the world. Masala (meaning spice) chai (meaning tea) is tea mixed with spices such as ginger, cardamom, black pepper, and cinnamon, as well as sugar.
Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei
The Southeast Asian countries of the Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei love their “teh tarik”, meaning “pulled tea”. This popular drink is first created by Indian-Muslim immigrants, and is served in roadside stalls or coffee shops.
Comprised of black tea, sugar and condensed milk mixed to frothy perfection, the concoction is poured through the air between two metal cups until it reaches the right texture. It takes years to master the art, so that you don’t pour the hot tea on yourself!
In Thailand, most people enjoy red tea which usually has a blend of anise and red and yellow spices. This is served cold mixed with sugar and condensed milk, and is another tea drink which is being popularised through Western countries.
Across Australia, many Thai restaurants will serve this lovely iced tea drink as a refreshing treat.
In Myanmar, people enjoy tea as a drink served with or without milk. But did you know that Myanmaris also enjoy eating their tea? Their national dish is known as lahpet, which is pickled tea served with a variety of side dishes and accompaniments.
Lahpet is eaten as a salad or as sort of a grazing platter, accompanied by things like fried garlic, coconut, sesame, peas, and peanuts.
Tea traditions around the world: to be continued
Next time, I will continue our geographical exploration of tea traditions around the world, focusing on Europe and North Africa.
What is your favourite tea tradition or your memorable tea experience? Share with me in the comments section below!
Wishing you a great day,
Suk-yi is a caffeine lover, blogger, entrepreneur, air quality consultant, environmentalist, world citizen, wife and mother. She explores various topics related to coffee, tea, chocolate and everything in between on her blog. Make sure to follow her on her Facebook Page, Instagram Page and Pinterest Page.